Friday, October 2, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Humble Volunteers Make Interviewing Difficult

By Craig Reck

Some people become excited when they see a news camera. It has something to do with being where the news is happening. Then to be asked to talk on camera and be a part of the news, well that’s something to tell your friends and family about.

But not everyone takes to the camera like a duck to water. Some people shy away from the camera. Witnesses, bystanders and spectators alike seem to freeze up when a camera arrives. This leaves the journalist in a tight situation. Interviews are crucial to reporting, but what happens when nobody wants to talk?

The Volunteers
I found myself in this situation last Saturday, September 26. Fellow MidDay reporter Jessica Neidhard and I were covering a local development organization. Rural Action services Athens County with sustainability workshops and green-inspired activities. The organization is fueled by a small paid staff, paying members and volunteers from several service organizations like Americorp.

Our story focused on the Americorp VISTA volunteers who were leaving Rural Action. To commemorate 15 years of VISTA service, Rural Action threw a huge party with catering from Casa Nueva and music from local bands Rattletrap and the Bob Stewart Band. With such a grandiose event, it should be easy to talk to a couple former volunteers.

Wrong. The volunteers reminisced with each other and avoided the camera. They hugged. They smiled. They stayed away from me. No worries. A charming (and finely dressed, I might add) reporter should be able to coax an interview out of somebody. Wrong. They all looked around at each other waiting for someone to step up. There was nothing but murmurs and mumblings. Then they recommended someone for the job. She declined as well.

Shy About Their Good Work
Here’s what I still do not understand. These volunteers were not random people on the street who I was hounding for an answer to healthcare reform. These were people who basically gave their lives to Athens County for one, two, sometimes three years. In return they received small allowances to live on and hardly any thanks. These people established programs that affect Athens residents without them even knowing it.

So why wouldn’t the volunteers want to share their stories? I wanted to report on the VISTAs and share their stories, but they didn’t want to share any of their stories in the first place. It was a good thing the party lasted a few hours.

Finally, someone volunteered to talk in front of the camera. Megan Cameron was a nice woman and a great interview. I did not ask her anything too personal so I didn't scare her off. She smiled while speaking about her VISTA experience, she laughed at my intentionally bad jokes and, best of all, she said some great things on camera. Afterwards, I thanked her and told her to tell her friends that the interview was painless. She agreed, but no other volunteers agreed to talk on camera.

Megan Cameron talks about her VISTA experience

Journalists as Outsiders
Jessica and I lucked out when some of the former VISTAS stood in front of the party to share stories. Time to record! The people who would not talk on camera were talking in front of a large group. Besides confusing me, this action taught me something. These volunteers were a part of a tightly knit community. Talking to them was like talking to family. If some goober in a tie with a camera wanted to talk to me during a family reunion, I would be timid as well.

The story turned out fine and made it to air, but that’s not what matters. In the middle of a reporting assignment, I learned a bigger lesson. Reporters, no matter how friendly, are considered outsiders first. We might aspire to be a part of peoples’ lives, but ultimately we are there to document their lives. This makes me feel like I am in the business for the wrong reasons. I genuinely enjoy the human connection. If it appears superficial to those I interact with, then they need to look past the business.

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